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On the occasion of the Viennale 2020, which this year, despite the pandemic, is taking place safely and with an as usual rich and varied programme, Cinema Austriaco had the opportunity to have a chat with festival director Eva Sangiorgi. With her we talked about this particular edition, the importance of keeping alive and active contact with the audience and, more generally, how important film festivals are nowadays. Interview by Marina Pavido.

Marina Pavido: What does it mean to direct a festival like the Viennale in the Covid era?

Eva Sangiorgi: There are good things and there are bad things. Basically, there is the story of a festival focused primarily on the relationship with the audience. And even though all festivals, in one way or another, have this aim, the Viennale was born precisely as a festival dedicated to the audience and to the city: a perfect mix of these experiences, allowing you to walk from one cinema to another, visiting historical cinemas time after time. In practice, an exclusively audience-focused festival. And in a situation like this a possible online alternative would make no sense, in my opinion.
At the same time, however, I understand the choices of other colleagues, because you have to justify your activities, your work, because you have to give work to a team. And in this sense going online is also a way of maintaining the project. For the Viennale, there was no such possibility, so we almost didn’t do anything. But, fortunately, it worked out very well for us and we also had a chance to reconsider the value of a festival in such a moment. And so, the decision to let the Viennale take place also became a political act. It was not easy to deal with the different difficulties, but in the end it worked out well for us.
Speaking of organisational details, it was quite a chaos. But with some positive implications. In this case all the procedures that we had been used to and that I myself inherited – because, by the way, the Viennale has no less than fifty-eight editions to its credit – were called into question and all the programmes had to be reworked. And that was not at all easy. But, in the same way, we had the opportunity to think of new solutions and to try new ways with a lower risk, since we were in any case justified by the emergency situation we were in. For example, even moving out of the city centre and into other cinemas created a bit of panic in some cases, but then it was still an opportunity to create new synergies and to lend a hand in some way to cinemas – many of them independent – that were struggling just like us, or even more than us.

M. P.: The Viennale, however, again boasts a very rich and varied programme this year. How did the selection process go, specifically?

E. S.: Fortunately we were able to watch a lot of films online. Then, in any case, one could shoot very little this year, many festivals were cancelled and so on. We, however, have the rule that a film must be an Austrian premiere, except for a specific section we created this year, namely the Diagonale section. This, however, created some problems, especially with regard to the geo blocking. If we had not been able to watch certain films, we would not have been able to programme anything, so this was a key point to discuss, also with other festival organisers. But in the end, always adapting to the situation, we managed to keep the same criteria of Austrian exclusivity.
As far as my selection work is concerned, I think I saw even more films than normal, even though there are fewer in the programme this year. In the case of some films – including, for example, those on the Cannes list – it was not easy to manage it and some had to be left out.
In any case, the desire to get the festival off the ground was great, from everyone. We had a lot of requests even before we opened our, albeit modest, call for entries.
However, as I said, this year the programme is more limited. The festival has usually always lasted two weeks, whereas this year I have shortened it to eleven days. This was one of the first decisions I made, so that I had less risk and could save money, as more than a fifth of the Viennale’s income is based on box office revenue from the two weeks of the festival. And there was also the issue of having to limit the number of seats, considering the fact that many spectators might be afraid to enter a cinema these days. But, on the other hand, we increased the number of theatres.
However, while there are normally around one hundred and ninety feature films in the official selection, this edition has been reduced to around one hundred and twenty.

M. P.: Let’s go back in time for a moment: you founded the FICUNAM film festival in Mexico City and directed it until 2018. What changed for you, professionally speaking, once you were in charge of the Viennale?

E. S.: So many things. First of all, from my personal point of view, I have a contract, something I never had before (laughs). And we are also talking about an eight-year contract. As far as FICUNAM is concerned, I have always tried to institutionalise it and currently the two directors have finally managed to have an administrative contract within the university from which everything starts.
Then, however, here, compared to before, I have a different kind of responsibility: here, fortunately, there is a team that knows how to do its job, the structure, in general, is much more stable. So, many responsibilities I had before – including, for example, paying for the electricity – have been taken away from me. At the FICUNAM I was really in charge of every single organisational aspect, even choosing the colour of the posters. It was really a family project.
Here there is much more experience, there is a team that works all year round, there are different departments that can take care of different production details. And this gives you much more time to think about other things. But on the other hand, in other respects, my responsibilities have increased exponentially. From one point of view it can be more stressful, while from another it is undoubtedly more relaxing.
Another initial problem I had was the fact that I don’t speak German, so in the first year my big responsibility was the selection of films and the construction of a curatorial concept. For the rest, everyone did their job impeccably, without me necessarily being able to understand the details. After three years, however, I can go into a lot of detail, despite my language barrier: by now I understand German.
Anyway, here I feel more relaxed, because thanks to my team, when I wake up in the morning I no longer have to worry about everything.

M. P.: How did the late of Hans Hurch, the long-time director of the Viennale, inspire you?

E. S.: I knew him before I took on this role, I really admired the Viennale and the way it was conceived. In the end I maintained this standard, implementing only minimal structural changes. He himself built a festival with this approach: a non-competitive, inclusive festival, less condescending than other big festivals. And this gives you a great freedom that you immediately perceive if you are a film fan and if you work in this field. This, however, is what I have always admired. Obviously I am a different person, I’m a woman, I’m from a different generation, I wasn’t born and grown up in an imperial city, I’m much more community-minded in the way I run things, but I like this authority to make a decision. In general terms, what has always inspired me in Hans’ way of working is the courage to make certain choices, to have made a festival of enjoyment, which takes care of the guests, which allows you to relax. And the city, for its part, is also quite enthusiastic about it.

M. P.: As far as Austrian cinema is concerned, in addition to the films in the official selection, there are important sections curated by the Filmarchiv Austria and the Austrian Filmmuseum. This year, however, given the situation, for the first time the Viennale and the Diagonale find themselves sharing a space. Could this collaboration continue tomorrow, even after this period of crisis has ended?

E. S.: No, this will not be possible. Although each does their job very well, ours is an international festival, while theirs deals exclusively with Austrian cinema. And even though we are both big festivals, festivals that have a lot in common, we are still two different realities.

M. P.: In any case, both the Viennale and the Diagonale now boast very young festival directors. How do young and very young audiences react to the festival?

E. S.: There are a lot of young people who come to the Viennale. Then, however, under non-pandemic conditions, we have collaborations with high schools that work very well, with special screenings at the Gartenbaukino. And as far as the paying public is concerned, the results are also very satisfying. It was my idea some time ago to create a special reduced ticket for students. And even though the Viennale still has a good part of its audience made up of its long-standing cinephiles, there are also many young people who take part in it.

M. P.: Since, especially during the pandemic, many streaming platforms have become even stronger, how do you think the experience and the very life of a film festival might change tomorrow?

E. S.: I’m wondering about that a lot. I’m not sure what will happen, but I think that if festivals slowly start moving all online, they will inevitably end up being decimated. Similarly, an in-person festival reaches a universal audience, whereas online festivals only reach those who are more familiar with technology. Similarly, making a selection exclusively online would almost become list-making rather than event organisation. This is why I believe that it is mainly the major festivals that will resist. And this makes me insist even more on the importance of organising an in-person festival.
Anyway, all over the world there are so many festivals. For example, when I arrived in Mexico there were about thirty festivals nationwide, whereas when I left, after sixteen years, there were one hundred and forty. And this created local opportunities, allowing anyone to attend a festival. And while it’s important that each festival has its own identity, it’s extremely essential that there are a lot of local festivals, so as to reach as many people as possible, to make a festival for the people and not just for the insiders.

M. P.: How powerful is a film festival today as a political and aggregation medium?

E. S.: Very powerful. Even more than before. Mainly because cinema is in crisis, cinemas are in crisis, and without a particular event, cinema attendance would inevitably drop. I also notice this when there is the Viennale: the theatres are full and people want to be part of a historical event in a specific place. This is the great power of a festival.

M. P.: One last point-blank question: forgetting your job for a moment, cinema for you is…?

E. S.: My job! (laughs) Seriously, cinema for me is a black hole that keeps a thousand things on the other side. A sort of leap into another dimension, while still staying in the same place.

Info: the website of the Viennale